Excessive Secrecy Regarding Dismissed Winnipeg Lab Scientists With Wuhan Connections

Commentary, COVID-19, Government, Lee Harding

Do people bend over backward to hide things if they have nothing to hide? If the answer is no, Canadians have every reason to wonder why the government has gone to such great lengths to hide why two Chinese scientists were fired from a Winnipeg lab.

For months, opposition MPs have sought unredacted records from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) that explain why Xiangguo Qiu and her husband, Keding Cheng, were fired from the National Microbiology Laboratory in Winnipeg. 

The president of PHAC has already stated the scientists were under review in 2018 for “possible breaches of security protocols” at the lab. The scientists lost their security clearances and the RCMP was called in to investigate in 2019. In January of 2021, it was disclosed that the pair had been fired after intervention from CSIS.

PHAC has withheld 250 pages of records in their entirety and partially censored hundreds of other pages. Some pages address how Dr. Qiu transferred deadly Ebola and Henipavirus to the Wuhan Institute of Virology in March of 2019. PHAC did not comply with requests by the Canada-China committee of MPs to turn over the documents in full.

Finally, the Conservative house leader made a successful motion that the House of Commons find that PHAC is in contempt of Parliament. The motion also required that the president of PHAC appear at the bar of the chamber for a formal reprimand, documents in hand. The “bar” is a literal long, brass bar that runs across the floor at the south entrance to the House of Commons.

The speaker of the House of Commons, a Liberal MP, carried out these orders which had not been given to a private citizen since 1913. However, the house leader did not bring the documents with him and his lawyer told the speaker that would be the case.

The Liberal house leader told the House of Commons that the information is “extremely sensitive…revealing covert methods of operation, tradecraft and investigative techniques, including putting at risk human sources and their families; identifying or helping to identify employees, [and] have a severe impact on Canada’s reputation as a responsible security partner.”

Did this explanation make the opposition and many Canadians any less curious? Probably not. Besides that, the committee asked for papers to be turned over to the Commons Law clerk who could ensure sensitive information was removed before the committee could see the documents behind closed doors.

Instead, the Liberals provided the unredacted documents to the all-party National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSICOP) whose members have top security clearance and are bound to secrecy. The federal government established NSICOP in 2018 to review Canada’s national security and intelligence activities. However, the speaker ruled the move was inadequate because NSICOP is not a standing committee of Parliament.

The turn of events left Conservative MP for Wellington-Halton Hills to ask fellow MPs, “Why do Canadians send 338 of their fellow citizens to this chamber if their decisions are going to be ignored? Why do we spend $400-million on this chamber and [the Senate] if our votes do not mean anything?”

Dr. Qiu was listed as one of the inventors on two patents filed in Beijing by the Chinese government in 2017 and 2019 related to the Ebola and Marburg viruses. It is illegal for Canadian civil servants to file a patent outside the country without permission from the minister they report to.

In 2009, the prime minister was one of many MPs who wanted the release of documents related to Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan. 

“Bits of blacked-out documents with key information missing are not disclosure. Non-answers in the House are not disclosure,” the prime minister told the House. “We need to get at the truth.”

This time around, the prime minister and his government have taken the unprecedented step of having the Attorney-General’s office file an application in Federal Court requesting that information demanded by the speaker of the House on behalf of the House of Commons stay secret.

The speaker called the matter “urgent” and said the House of Commons Law clerk would prepare a legal defence.

“The legal system does not have any jurisdiction over the operations of the House. We are our own jurisdiction. That is something we will fight tooth and nail to protect and we will continue to do that,” speaker of the House of Commons said.

The lawsuit left the Conservative House Leader to ask, “If the government does not respect the orders of the House of Commons, why should Canadians respect laws voted upon by the House of Commons?”

The Conservative House Leader’s rhetorical question is all too relevant. Parliamentarians and Canadians alike deserve to know what happened. As it stands, a virus of secrecy has infected the government and begs for a cure.

Lee Harding is a research associate with the Frontier Centre of Public Policy.